March 16, 2012 in City

Protect air base, leaders plead

Restrictions urged for development around Fairchild
By and The Spokesman-Review
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• Written comments on the casino proposal may be made by April 16 to Stanley Speaks, Northwest regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Northwest Region, 911 N.E. 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97232.

• A public hearing on a draft environmental impact statement for the casino is set for 6 p.m. on March 26 at Sunset Elementary School in Airway Heights.

Spokane business leaders on Thursday asked for help in stopping a proposed Spokane Tribe casino and hotel resort near Fairchild Air Force Base.

They said the site on the north side of U.S. Highway 2 just west of Airway Heights is the “worst possible” place for a resort because it intensifies civilian encroachment of the base.

The public currently has a chance to weigh in either with written comment or by attending a public hearing next week, they said in urging public opposition.

“Fairchild is just too important to put in jeopardy,” said Greg Bever, chairman of the Forward Fairchild advocacy group.

Fairchild is the area’s largest employer, with 5,700 military and civilian workers and a $1.3 billion economic impact, the business people said at a press conference.

Greg Abrahamson, Spokane tribal council chairman, said the business concerns are exaggerated. The tribe wants to develop the casino on 145 acres of nonreservation trust land at Craig Road. Abrahamson said the tribe has met with Pentagon and Air Force officials and has been assured the casino poses no negative effects to Fairchild’s current operations.

“We have committed to working with the base commander in whatever way we can,” he said. “We will work with the Air Force and intend to stay in close contact and communicate, so that we don’t have problems.”

The casino is expected to meet Air Force recommendations under an agreement with Airway Heights, according to Airway Heights city officials. But business and political leaders in Spokane said they think the concentration of people at a resort and hotel would violate the suggested standards from the Air Force.

The project needs approval by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Washington’s governor. Tribal officials said they hope to obtain those approvals by the end of the year. The tribe says the project will raise living standards for tribal members and others.

Business leaders counter that a protected Fairchild has even more powerful economic benefits; it could land new missions if other bases are closed in coming years.

Anticipated cuts in U.S. defense spending will likely lead to two new rounds of base closures starting around 2014.

Civilian encroachment is a major negative factor and can lead to a closure, while land-use limits are seen as a plus, business leaders said.

That could be significant in an emerging competition to bring the first in a new fleet of Boeing KC-46A tankers to Fairchild. The Air Force is expected to issue criteria for selection of the first KC-46A base in April.

Tall buildings, along with lighting, glare and dust or smoke are threats to aircraft. Also, people in the flight zone are at risk in a crash. The casino’s proposed hotel tower of up to 145 feet could limit or alter training loops around the base, business officials said.

While the casino is debated, top officials in Spokane County and the cities of Spokane and Airway Heights are working on new land-use regulations to protect Fairchild from encroachment adjacent to the base.

On Thursday, the Spokane County Planning Commission and county commissioners convened a joint public hearing on those rules, which would freeze current land uses and protect the area from more intense development for safety reasons.

Several residents and landowners testified that the proposed rules would strip them of property rights.

Patricia Apregan, a property owner within the proposed zone, said the rules would put a tourniquet on West Plains growth.

“You are taking away a lot of the West Plains’ future,” she told commissioners.

Business leaders opposed to the casino testified in favor of the new land-use regulation. Rich Hadley, CEO and chairman of Greater Spokane Incorporated, called for outright prohibition of uses that attract large numbers of people, such as a hotel.

A final decision by county commissioners is expected by about April 16.

Business leaders said a chart tracing Fairchild flights shows many training loops go directly over the proposed casino at roughly 500 feet above ground.

Ken Small, who worked on the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission staff, said the next round of closures will hit a large number of communities, partly because the Air Force has reduced its fleet of planes.

He called encroachment the “Achilles’ heel” of an air base.

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